A Little Background

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the last post. All of it good. Ann, I want to thank you for your explanation of some of the cultural issues here that often don’t make much sense. It sounds like you have a good grasp on things.

I realized though, that I need to clarify some things. Mostly it’s because I was writing and just trying to explain one small part of the whole, not the entire thing. I realized that there are assumptions made, both on my part and on the part of people reading what I wrote, which is understandable. See, I write knowing all the little details of my life here and it’s easy to forget that you don’t read with that background so it’s easy to read things differently than I may have intended. I also assume that everyone has gone back the two years that I’ve written and read about some of the experiences that I’ve had here. That’s the background that I’m writing from so it’s understandable that things get missed or forgotten or just assumed. Oops.

Some explanation:

I said that Chris and I, TOGETHER, had never just “gone on a walk” in our neighborhood. I didn’t say that I have never gone on a walk in my neighborhood. I have. Many times. I have gone out walking on my own. Other times it has been with visitors or other Clean Water for Haiti volunteers. I also didn’t say that we’ve never gone out walking. Chris and I have gone hiking in other areas around where we live. Actually not too far from here. We just haven’t ever walked together within the immediate radius of our house past the driveway leading to the main highway. Actually, that’s not even true. Come to think of it we have walked in our neighborhood together. It was the night that we got engaged. We had to walk halfway home from the place that Chris asked me because the tap tap that we managed to catch after dark wasn’t going any further. It was just dark so no one really realized it was us. And I simply forgot about that. How I should have phrased it was, “We had never walked down this particular path in our neighborhood before”.

I’ve lived in Haiti for 2 years. When I first arrived here it was the fall of 2005. Things were still in uproar. We live about 200 feet from Route 1 Nationale, the national highway. In 2004 during the coup Chris was within hours of getting on a boat and fleeing the country to Cuba. All of the roads were closed, there were manifestations everywhere, people were angry and there were a lot of community problems. Within a month or so of him coming to work with Clean Water for Haiti at it’s current site, one of the local Haitian workers was shot in the neck because of a personal issue. The man almost died. This happened on our property, in the middle of the night, by someone in the area. We have been robbed, several times. Once someone managed to sneak in the house through one of the upper windows in the middle of the night. The one that was the most difficult though was in January of last year, right after New Years. We got a call in Canada from Val, a volunteer at the time who was staying at the mission over the holiday with her mom, to tell us that someone had snuck in the house, past our guard, during the day and hid upstairs in my room. That night when she was just about to get ready for bed the man came out of hiding and held a gun to her head. There have been many more experiences like that here, in our neighborhood. Chris was also shot at by a group of men while driving around in Port au Prince one day. That was one of the days that I really knew that I loved him – when the idea of him not being there because of something that was happening randomly was very real and present.

I share that stuff not to freak you out. Actually, that’s why I haven’t really shared it in the past. I want people to want to visit us because things are much different now. I share it to make the point that we have had some major issues in our area that have made living here feel really unsafe at times. Because of that and the time that I first moved to the country, it didn’t feel really safe to be out a lot. Chris has gone through a lot while he’s been here and because of it is maybe more cautious than most people would be. I totally get that. I didn’t want to walk around a lot on my own because I didn’t feel safe.

I think it’s important to share a bit more about who I am too. I know that its easy to feel like you know a lot about me because I write, but there is so much that I don’t write about on here. Instead, you sort of get bits and pieces – a thought about this, a feeling about that, something that I saw etc. It’s never the whole deal.

I’m naturally a very shy person. I can be very outgoing, outwardly, but I HATE being in situations where I know no one and I have to be really social. That’s so hard for me. Once I get to know people a bit I am totally fine, but I tend to be close to a few really good friends, not a huge social group. Take that and put it in the context of living in a place like Haiti. Hard. My culture and Haitian culture probably couldn’t be more different. I remember so many days of just wanting to hide away because I was so overwhelmed after moving here. I essentially had to start all over. I didn’t have any formal kreyol classes, instead I was learning through talking to people and using books. I have had to learn how to get along in the culture around me. It was like being a child again and having to learn everything all over again.

But, despite all of that I think I’ve adjusted pretty well here. I can speak enough kreyol/Creole to get out on my own, run errands and not feel totally lost. I can understand enough now that I don’t feel overwhelmed all the time simply because I hear words coming out of people’s mouths and they don’t register. I actually find it really entertaining when people talk about me right in front of me thinking that I don’t understand anything, especially when they say to each other, “Li pa kapab konpran kreyol,” at which point I might just smile and look at them with a raise eyebrow that says, “Are you so sure about that?” or actually say, “M’ konpran.” I understand. I think it’s fun to sit on a tap tap and just listen to what people talk about.

I know I don’t know everything. I know that I make a lot of mistakes and have probably really offended people here with the things I don’t know. I think about that a lot. Please don’t think I don’t ask people about things or talk to them about cultural issues that I don’t understand. I do. I love talking to Yonese or Jean about what’s around me because they are two of the people here that will give us/me a straight answer, not just tell me what they think the “blan” wants to hear. There have been times where I have really misunderstood what someone said to me and asked about it, realizing that the way it translated in English was not what was meant.

I think it’s really important to realize that you can’t blanket statement Haiti, just like you can’t blanket statement Canada, the US or any other country. You can’t do this about a culture because within a culture there are sub-cultures. Here’s an example from my own country, my own sub-culture. I’m Canadian. I’m from BC. I was born and raised in the Okanagan Valley where we have lakes and ski hills and outdoor activities like camping are the norm. People are noticeably laid back. A lot. Life just sort of moves at a different pace. I worked at a church for three years there before I moved here. Halfway through that three years we got a new Lead Pastor. He started in September and when the summer rolled around he was stressing out about the fact that all of the programs in our church basically grinded to a halt for July and August. It was like that because people have the ability to just decide to go camping etc and they don’t want to commit to anything during those months. The second year that he was there he was bound and determined to change the church programs and make things run during the summer, because that was the way all the other churches he had worked in had functioned. It didn’t work. People still didn’t commit, no matter how much work was put into it. He’s been there for several years now and that church still doesn’t have programs running through the summer :) What happens in one part of a country/province/state etc may not be how things are done in another.

While overall Haitians are very friendly, which I agree is true, and polite and accommodating and hospitable, there are always exceptions to the rule, as there are in every culture. The things I was writing about in the last post were based on my experiences in our area. They are specific. I wasn’t making blanket statements about Haiti. Just talking about what I have experienced and why it bothers me. They may not be anyone else’s experiences because you may have been in a different part of the country, you may have worked with different people, you may not have had to deal with some of the community issues that we have. Again, these are my experiences.

Our area has some specific issues that many other areas of Haiti don’t. First off, in the zones between Montrouis and St. Marc there have been a large number of missions and missionaries that have chosen to give a lot of things away as part of their programs. Everyone has their opinions about this, including me, but we’re not discussing that. The work we do here at the mission is very specific – we don’t do anything but filters. And we don’t give filters away. We don’t do that because when we did people didn’t look after them. Now that they pay a small portion the filters are valued. Because of this approach people don’t always take too kindly to us. They think that we should just hand things out like other missions have. Chris has seen people in this area literally drive other missionaries out at gun point because a decision was made to stop giving things away. That’s scary. That mission was within a 5 minute drive of our house. More often than not, before ever saying “Bonju” to us, people in our area will tell us to give them something. Many people in our area (I said many, not all) have a sense of entitlement, that because we are white we should give.

There’s another thing that makes it harder for us at times. It’s the property that we live on. When the founders started the mission they did so renting an apartment at the YWAM base in St. Marc. They knew they needed to find their own property and the only thing available at the time that was big enough was the property we are currently on. The National highway is only about 300 feet away from the ocean here. In between are beach homes. Weekend homes that are owned by upper class Haitian families. We are smack dab in the middle of this strip of homes. Because of that we automatically get associated with that group of people, even though this is a mission and together Chris and I probably “bring in” the same amount that one of us would make working at Starbucks – and that’s financial support that we have to raise on our own, we don’t get paid by the mission. We will never have people understand that here though because they will have a hard time seeing past what is right in front of them, what they have known to be a dividing point. That makes things hard. There are times that we wish the mission was located somewhere else, but this is the place that God chose for us. Our yard doesn’t have a big brick wall around it. In fact, our yard is actually in two parts with a public walkway dividing it. We do have fences up but the one around the house part of the property is made of sticks and barbed wire. Our dog likes to escape through many of it’s holes if it’s more convenient than going to the open gate. Our beach gate is never locked, and if it were someone could easily hop over the fence. We don’t want a big wall around the mission because we don’t want people to feel cut off, like we’re trying to isolate ourselves. We do have tres kokye (woven together coconut leaves that make tall sort of screen) along one fence for a bit of privacy, just like a lot of other Haitian homes.

Some of the things that I’ve mentioned give people a different attitude here than they might have if they were living in other parts of the country. I understand the background and reasons for it, I just don’t like the way it gets directed at me at times simply because I am white and I am here. I have, on repeated occasion, greeted people in the lane by our house and either not been greeted, stared at and not been greeted or have actually had them say something offensive. When I say offensive, I mean having a young man look directly at me and say, “F*** you.”

I made reference to the statement, “Mwen blan.” I realize that this may not be “proper” kreyol/Creole. It may not be used in other parts of the country. It may not be right. BUT, it is used here. I have heard it repeatedly. Chris has heard it repeatedly. Three weekends ago we were having lunch with neighbors, light skinned Haitians, and a man came up to their beach fence and said, “Mwen blan! Bay mwen…” He was talking to our friends that time, not us. Our friends didn’t have as much patience for it and yelled at the man (this was Haitian to Haitian – I’m still not used to the way people yell at each other here) that he was being offensive, that he shouldn’t just walk up to the fence and talk to people that way and that he needed to leave. Chris and I let out a sigh of relief because we realized that it wasn’t just us that got that from people here, and our friend apologized to us for the incident and shared his frustration over the fact that people weren’t like that around here in the past. So, I’m sorry, but I disagree with you Ann, about the use of kreyol in this particular case. It might be different from what you know but it does in fact get used in our zone. That makes sense to me because we encounter that with the English language too. We use different phrases, terms and slang, depending on where we live.

There are many things that are different in different parts of Haiti. There are many things that have changed in Haiti over the years too. Some friends of ours that moved to Haiti 37 years ago because it was the place to be tell us regularly how much different things are in the country now, and mostly how different things in our area are. They tell us things like people are less content now and not as friendly, in our area. I can only trust what they say because I wasn’t here 30 years ago, but many people of all classes have echoed the same thing. An example of this is how people flag down a tap tap here. Ann made reference to people hissing at the tap tap to get it to stop. I have only occasionally seen this done, and not in our area, but rather in Port au Prince, and actually not all that often. Here, people point a finger and do a sort of loose wrist wag point at the ground. It makes sense considering we live along the national highway and many tap taps now have loud sound systems playing constantly. The driver would never hear the hiss. It’s just a shift in the culture. Chris and I have also had opportunity recently, now that things are getting safer all over the country, to travel around a bit. The thing that has become blatantly obvious to us is that our area is in fact very different than others that we have visited.

I know this is long and a lot to read, but I just don’t want people to get an idea about our lives here that is far from accurate, simply because of a lack of information. I don’t hole myself up at home never speaking to anyone. It’s so not the case. All I was simply stating in the previous post is that Chris and I had never walked in that particular part of our neighborhood together. We do know our neighbors. Asny is a painter and when we have foreigners in we like to take them to see his paintings because they make great souvenirs and we like to give him the business. His wife, Garnelle, often comes here to charge her cell phone or to put something in our freezer. We have a pipe going to the lakou behind us that pumps water into a cistern for them when our generator is running. Right now as I type one of our employees’ girlfriends is washing laundry in our yard because we have a well and constant water. Our neighborhood is also a bit different because of all the weekend homes. Many of them sit empty for a good part of the year, so our “immediate” neighbors get visited when they are here.

I want to share something else. Things have been hard here for a long time. BUT, they are getting better. Where we used to avoid sitting out side in the yard because people passing by on the beach would stop and just stand there staring or harass us, many of them just walk by now and wave, we greet each other, we smile. It’s nice. We have local fishermen than come by and sell us fish, and when we we decline because we still have some in the freezer they don’t tell us we’re cheap anymore, but rather tell us to have a nice evening. The ladies in Montrouis that sell fruit in front of Oasis store don’t mob me any more when I go there. I think it’s because one day one of the ladies called me “chich” (cheap) and then I asked her if she was cheap because she didn’t buy things she didn’t need. We both ended up laughing and no one has bothered me since. People are getting friendlier and that makes me happy. They do know my name and will use it. I do politely tell people that they can say, “Bonju Madame!” rather than “blan”, but I think I already shared that. I really notice these things. Chris laughs at me and thinks I’m a goon a times because I get excited about stuff like that. Seeing changes like that makes it feel more like home here. It makes me happy because I see that people around here are happier overall, in our area.

I have absolutely no problem with the “Bonju” and “Bonswa” thing because it actually comes very naturally to me. I am Canadian after all. We have a reputation for being pretty friendly. I love that people take the time to greet each other here. I have a hard time when I go back home and see how reserved people are. I like the kiss kiss thing too. I get so used to it that when I go back to Canada or the US I have to physically remind myself over the first couple days not to dive in and kiss people on the cheeks when I greet them because they’ll think I’m a freak. I also have to remind myself not to speak Creole. In fact, when we got into the Miami airport last time I went to the bathroom and there was a woman in there with her two little kids. She was dealing with one and the other little one was standing next to a stall door. I asked him in Creole if he needed the bathroom! He kind of looked at me strangely. See, my brain saw a black boy and it clicked into Creole. It didn’t hit me until later what I had done and I had to keep reminding myself, “English, English, English!”

Please don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t want that. Life is challenging here at times, but for the most part I think our life is pretty darn good. I love that we feel that we can, and want to get out more. I love that everyone overall seems to be happier here now. I do appreciate your thoughts and prayers as I/we navigate the life we’re living here. We will and do make a lot of mistakes. I often hope and pray that people here will have the patience and understanding to let us learn in the same way that I would hope to do the same for someone new to my home country. And, I don’t feel jaded or that I’m getting hardened to any of it. I think I’m a perpetual optimist actually, and like I said, I get excited about the little things here. I feel blessed to be here even though it is the hardest thing I have ever done. At the same time, God is showing me how to be like a duck and let certain things “roll” off my back. There will be times though where I do get frustrated with the culture and just need to share why. And, that’s okay. I get frustrated with my own culture, and I do share that with people in my friend circle. I think we all do that.

I hope a bit more background is helpful and that it’ll help everyone read through different eyes :)

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This entry was posted in this is haiti, this is life by Leslie. Bookmark the permalink.

About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

2 thoughts on “A Little Background

  1. A beautiful post, thank you Leslie.I like that you have called me Ann… I had signed off “Ann Koze”, kreyòl for “Let’s talk” and you have done just this, you have opened a new path of conversation. You have given us a true gift with the honesty of this post. I thank you. My name is Ezekiel, but I am happy to be call Ann Koze! You have given the strangers in the “blogosphere” not just background, but foreground as well… You have shown us what is behind you, but you also show us many things that lie ahead. Thank you for your patience with the parts of your stories that I misunderstand and I hope you are open to your blog being, in part, a chance for a community of friends to ask, encourage and challenge each other. I have been reading you posts for a long time now, and have wanted to reply on many occasions.So if we approach this dialogue with respect, and with the overall agreement that in MANY cases we will misunderstand each other, then there will not be any surprises!Look again at your post. Every single sentence could be a first sentence to a whole page of thoughts and reflections! I know blogs serve many different purposes, and this blog is not just for you to talk about your experience getting to know Haiti, but about lots of other things too, but this one post is full of pebbles of stories that can lead to other stories. Personally, and selfishly, I’d love to hear more about these in future posts!Tell us more about how your culture and Haitian culture have scraped over each other and sanded each other down, how have you changed since coming to Haiti? How did you keep from being overwhelmed. I am from Haiti living in Canada, and my culture certainly scrapes of the rough surface of Canadian culture and I am often at a loss, unsure of how to be in this culture. Tell us more about your adventures in kreyòl… what are the words and expressions that make you laugh and confuse you? I have been very interested in how non-haitian’s interpret Haitian proverbs, as you suggest, language soaks itself in it’s context. And “deye mon…” is a sad proverb to some, and a hopeful one to others…tell us more.Tell us about Yonese, Jean, the girl washing laundry, the shish machan, your boujwa neighbours, your Haitian collegues, Ansy, Garnelle. What have you learned from them? What do you see of Christ in them? What are their struggles, and what do they tell you about your own struggles?And please, continue to tell us of your frustration and confusions, no one asks you to be perfect here. Please continue to be honest about the horrible violence and injustice of my country. Be honest about the desperation that pushes people into crime, and be honest about the terrible spiral of violence. Be honest about the culture of dependency perpetuated by well-meaning blan, who go to Haiti with little respect and only pity for Haitians and who have created a culture of “ba’m yon dola”. Be honest about the links between over-consumption and wealth in the North and poverty and desperation in countries like Haiti. Your honesty is all we can expect.I’ll be honest with you. I care about this in part because you are going to raise a Haitian child, one of cousins. For too many terrible reasons Haitians are too sick, too poor or too dead to raise their own children. And so many children with whom I share the same ancestors have been welcomed into the homes and hearts of people like yourself. To this m ba w anpil respe … but I carry a deep desire that my little cousins are raised with opportunities to learn where they are from…. Not as a place on a map, but as a culture and a community. It is my hope that Haitian children that are adopted know that they were wanted, despite the hideous situations that force parents to put children up for adoption. This is important to me. I don’t know you, but I have no doubt that you will offer the world to this baby, and that he/she will be blessed with your unconditional love. You have clearly been blessed by my country and my people and I am proud of this. I am being blessed by yours, and of this you too should be proud. Ann Koze Your friend, Ezekiel

  2. This is the Val mentioned as having been robbed at gun point in today’s post.I don’t always agree with Leslie, but today I would like to support her in this:You don’t need to be freaked out by her stories of the dangerous occurrences around the mission. Haiti, including the 4th arrondissement of St Marc, does go through periods of insecurity. This is not acceptable, but it is also not the subject of this comment:Foreigners needn’t worry excessively about the violence.It is oft quoted that most Blan who die in Haiti (and Africa) die from traffic accidents. I have the statistics somewhere, but as my lunch break is nearly up I will have to get them later. Perhaps Leslie will post for me or I will put on my blog. In the meantime, I just wanted to say that I am going back to Haiti, (soon, if my leave from work is approved) because I miss my friends. While I know that it can be dangerous, I do not believe it has very often been as dangerous as the public imagination conceives. Tou, mwen ta-reme mande nimpòt moun ki gen pasyans pou pratike kreyol ave-m pou di-m sa nan blog mwen. Mèsi anpil!

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